Death, The New Normal. 20 years after dad.

Edna St. Vincent Millay

Les Green.tree sweaterWading through old email earlier this year, I found this piece that Parker J. Palmer called Death, The New Normal. It’s fairly short.

“If emotional honesty is part of living well — which surely it is — then shaking my fist at death is just as important as accepting it. If that’s unenlightened, so be it! At least I have the good company of the poet Edna St. Vincent Millay.

“I discovered her ‘Dirge Without Music’ when my father died nearly twenty years ago. I found a curious peace in the poet’s refusal to accept the inevitable, and I find it again today.”

As it turns out, it’s been twenty years since my father died. And I remember it all, astonishingly well. Hearing, in Albany, that my father was in the hospital. The news on a Thursday that my father had a stroke. My wife and I staying in his hospital room in Charlotte the following Monday night. The levity between my father and my baby sister on Tuesday morning.

The rapid decline he had undergone between Tuesday morning and Wednesday evening, when the doctor said he would die within the week. Starting to write the obituary on Thursday morning, only to get the news that he was dying. And my sisters had both vehicles. Me waking the next-door neighbor who worked nights, and who I did not know, to get him to drive my mother and me to the hospital. My wife staying back to watch niece Alex. Mom and I arriving after he had died.

The lengthy funeral negotiations on Friday. The funeral on Sunday. The burial at a military cemetery 40 miles away on Monday, and deciding that taking the limo made sense. A bunch of aftermath stuff.

Poem

Dirge Without Music
by Edna St. Vincent Millay

I am not resigned to the shutting away of loving hearts in the hard ground.
So it is, and so it will be, for so it has been, time out of mind:
Into the darkness they go, the wise and the lovely. Crowned
With lilies and with laurel they go; but I am not resigned.

(Excerpted from Collected Poems. Read the full poem here.)

Dear old dad in Newspapers.com

the Ongleys

When I was on my genealogical journey for my father’s biological male parent, I got a subscription to Newspapers.com. You know, memory is a peculiar thing. I took a deep dive into the records that mentioned Les Green. There were over 300 items in the Binghamton, NY newspapers, most before 1974.

The earliest may have a picture of Les and his stepfather McKinley in 1942 with other Boy Scouts and their dads. I discovered that he was involved in the 1960s as a leader in scouting at the Interracial Center on 45 Carroll Street. Yet in my brief tenure as a Cub Scout, I never got the sense that dad was interested in scouting at all.

I remember that my father was the production chairman of the Civic Theater, the community performance troupe. Specifically, I recall his involvement with the 1960 production of Guys and Dolls, which was very successful. Even then, I thought the show, starting with the title, was rather old-fashioned. (Sidebar: my wife saw Bob Hoskins perform as Nathan Detroit in London in the early 1980s, so she’s more favorably inclined.)

The previous Civic Theater production was Separate Tables by Terrence Rattigan. What I didn’t know was that Helen Foley, speech and drama instructor at Binghamton Central HS was the director. She was my public speaking teacher a decade later, but neither my father nor la Foley ever mentioned to me that they knew each other. Helen Foley, BTW, was also the favorite teacher of Rod Serling of Twilight Zone fame, back in the early 1940s.

BTW, the costumes for Separate Tables were done by my grandmother Agatha and “Mrs. George Ongley.” George Ongley was Nathan Detroit in Guys and Dolls. My family visited their family for a time at the Ongley home in suburban Vestal. They had a couple kids if I’m remembering correctly.

Fighting for justice

Unsurprisingly, most of the clippings in the papers of dad were of him singing and playing the guitar. I knew my father performed at the Binghamton State Hospital, the “first institution designed and constructed to treat alcoholism as a mental disorder in the United States,” several times. But I didn’t know he was President of the hospital’s volunteer council c. November 1963. I wonder why he was so invested in that institution.

He was involved in a variety of civil rights organizations, such as the William L. Moore chapter of CORE. Once, his white colleagues sent me into the local Woolworth’s to see if I, like other black kids, would be harassed by the employees or the police. I was not on that day.

Dad headed the Binghamton-Broome Council of the NYS Division of Human Rights head by 1969. Interestingly, the formation of this body was rejected by the Binghamton city council five years earlier. That action generated a third of a page petition in the paper. “There is not a single day when a Negro does not suffer the indignity… of discrimination” in the city. It was signed by my mother, father, and McKinley, as well as over 230 other adults, many of whom I knew.

My father was Chair of the Human Rights Advisory Council in 1972. Yet I did not recall that he claimed that he was denied entrance to a public billiards parlor in Binghamton because of his race in July 1968, taking his complaint to the state Division of Human Rights in September of that year. I don’t know what the resolution of the case was.

Finally, he was Director for Joint Apprenticeship and Training for the Associated Building Contractors in August 1972. When he lost that position, he ended up moving to Charlotte, NC in 1974. Les Green was rather remarkable when I was growing up. Happy Father’s Day.

The parents’ balance of power

Married 1950; dad died in 2000, mom in 2011

March 12, 1950: Bride Trudy between Les (left, behind her) and Gert (to the right, dark hat)

My parents were married seventy years ago today. I think about them, individually and collectively, a lot. I’m sure that I’ve mentioned that, when I was growing up in Binghamton, I felt bad for my mom. She was often left out of the balance of power, as far as I could tell.

Mom was squeezed between her mother, who owned the house we lived in and resided a half a mile away, and her husband, who had an outsized personality. As I noted eight years ago, my mother telling secrets to her kids was the great equalizer. They were stories about my dad that he had presumably told her in confidence.

At the time, I was thrilled to get the insights. He was born out of wedlock? The guy I knew as my grandfather wasn’t his biological grandfather? Dad hated Christmas because a drunk relative toppled the Christmas tree when he was seven? That explained a lot.

It was only after he died in 2000 that I fully recognized my discomfort with the setup. My sisters and I couldn’t ACT on the information. We couldn’t ask him about so much because we knew things that he didn’t know we knew.

How would we be able to explain knowing what knew without ratting out our mother? And what would have been the repercussions on her?

There were two times when I saw her with the upper hand in the relationship. One was when my father moved to Charlotte, NC and she took her sweet time following him down. My mom’s aunt Charlotte, for one, was not a fan of my father and actively campaigned for her to stay in upstate New York. Eventually, though, she, and my baby sister, and eventually my maternal grandmother all moved down to North Carolina.

The belated 1996 Christmas

The other time she had the balance of power was so out of the blue. In January 1997, my sisters, their daughters and I were all down in Charlotte. My father was brooding all day, doing what my sisters and I called the “black cloud,” a sulking so intense that it almost felt that he literally sucked the air out of the room.

Finally, that evening, Dad explained that he thought the daughters of my sisters were being disrespectful and not too big to spank. Leslie, ever the diplomat, expressed her appreciation for his sharing, but kindly disagreed. I followed her lead.

Then my mother launched into a tirade – or as much of one as she could muster. It was about how he had taken out a lot of money, five figures, from their joint bank account without her knowledge. Money that he spent for items for his various businesses.

I should note that he was notoriously bad at record keeping. He probably could have written off some losses if he could be disciplined enough to submit receipts to their beleaguered bookkeeper, Cecil.

In any case, mom’s complaint about the money was valid. Those losses affected her for years after he died in August 2000. Yet, in that moment, I felt badly for dad, who had been expressing his feelings but totally shut down after that. Perhaps that was why he was so secretive about the evolution of the prostate cancer that killed him. That was HIS power.

And yet it was obvious that, after all of that, they still loved each other. He worked hard to arrange a surprise party for her on their 50th, and last anniversary in 2000. And by arrange, that included doing the bulk of the decorations. Presumably, he was in some physical discomfort.

Long-standing relationships can be complicated, I suppose.

Les Green, born Leslie H. Walker

new amended birth certificate

Les Green.Savannah GA.1998My new discovery is that I now have evidence that my father was born Leslie H. Walker in Binghamton, NY. I had been misled that it might have been Wesley Walker, based on the listing in the 1930 Census.

After failing to find a birth certificate in Wilkes-Barre, PA, where I thought he might have been born, I read some genealogical clues. One suggested the New York State Archives, in the same building as the state library in Albany.

I discovered a set of microfiche. It lists every birth in New York State – excluding NYC – by year, and alphabetically within the annual listing. For 1926, “Walker, Leslie H., Bing, 26 Sept.” I have to think it was no accident that Agatha named him similar to Raymond C. Cone’s elder daughter Lessie.

Now I could apply for his real birth certificate. The birth certificate I’d seen since 1974, dated from 1944, listed McKinley Green as Leslie Green’s father. I now know it may have been the “real” birth certificate. Or a legal fiction. Thanks to Melanie for the following:

According to this: “As a portion of the estimated 6 million adoptees, our New York adoptees have two ‘official’ birth certificates. The original one, which truthfully states the information about their physical birth, including their original names, their natural parents’ names, the hospital, doctor, date, time and weight, becomes forever sealed under a court of law when their adoption is finalized.”

Birth certificate #2

“At that point, the new adoptive parents are issued a new amended birth certificate which might or might not state the real birth information such as date, time, hospital and weight, and replaces the natural parents names with the adoptive parents names ‘as if’ the child was born to them. The name of the child is also reborn and all identity from the point of finalization on is replaced.”

Ha! So the registrar didn’t screw up. McKinley and Agatha didn’t lie. And this suggests heavily that McKinley Green actually adopted Leslie H. Walker by 1944, though my father’s surname shows up as Green as early as the 1940 Census.

Since November 2019, obtaining Original (Pre-Adoption) Birth Certificates are now available for adoptees from New York State. “Direct Line Descendants” are also eligible to access it. “A Direct Line Descendant is a child, grandchild, or great grandchild, etc. of the adoptee.” I qualify.

I’ve applied directly to the City of Binghamton office of Vital Statistics. New York State’s queue for old birth, marriage and death certificates is about 15 months.

Agatha Green, and McKinley and Les

5 Gaines Street

Agatha GreenThe result of my great reveal is has been quite heartening. People are impressed, as they ought to be, about the moxie of my late grandmother, Agatha Green, nee Walker, as well as their affection for my dad, Les Green.

I realize that I hadn’t remarked much about her in this blog. Well, except here. That’s because she died when I was nine, in 1964. While I remember her fondly, as I noted, I have only two broad memories. One is that she was my Sunday school teacher. The other is that she taught me how to play canasta on her kitchen table.

My parents and I lived on the second floor of 5 Gaines Street in Binghamton. But at some point in the early 1950s – probably by the time my sister Leslie was born – we moved to the first floor. McKinley and Agatha moved upstairs.

As I’ve mentioned, I fell down the hallway stairs from the second floor to the first when I was about three, in 1956. No doubt I was visiting one or both of my grandparents. As a result, a have a tiny knot under my lower lip where facial hair refuses to grow. It’s not some sort of “soul patch” affectation.

Pop

Now McKinley I’ve written about several times, going back to the earliest months of this blog, and also here and here and here.

So this new information requires a balancing act. Discovering my biological grandfather doesn’t mean my sisters and I abandon our affection for Mac. At the same time, I know my father must have suffered, not just from Raymond Cone, but the off-again, on-again relationship between Mac and Agatha.

They were married in 1931, living together in 1932, but by 1936, they weren’t. In 1940, Agatha and Les lived with her parents, while McKinley was in a boarding house, and this was still true in 1943. Yet on the faux birth certificate that my father obtained from Binghamton, NY, McKinley was listed as Les’ father. (But Mac was a poor liar; he listed how old he was in 1944, not in 1926 when Les was born.) Mac and Agatha Green are together again by 1946.

Several people have asked me what I’m feeling. That’s why I write, to try to figure these things out. I’m still working on it. I appreciate the outpouring off support in my journey. Well, it’s OUR journey, really, Leslie’s and Marcia’s and mine, attempting to sort out the myths from the truth of our lineage.